Monday, April 29, 2013

A Different Break

Spring is here! And students all over the country are choosing to go on alternative break trips. A counter to more traditional spring or winter break trips, alternative breaks are centered around service. The trips often have a theme, usually a social issue like poverty or education, and the experience encourages participants to reflect, grow, and think critically.

Many of our VISTAs planned and executed Alternative Spring Breaks (ASBs) for their host campuses. This week we highlight a few of those trips! And if you are inspired reading about these experiences, plan to join NC Campus Compact's Alternative Service Experiences Institute on June 18-19 at High Point University.

LRU students prepare to paint.
For Ariel Mitchell, VISTA at Lenoir-Rhyne University, the Alternative Spring Break trip she planned and led was a departure from the norm. "We do not have a history of working with community partners in our community on Alternative Spring Breaks. Typically we go outside of the state to show students life in another community." This year, however, they formed a new relationship with Camp Dogwood, a local non-profit. Ariel tells the story of her alternative break experience:

"Camp Dogwood is a meeting and retreat center during the school year and a summer camp for the blind and visually impaired during the summer months. We took 16 students and 2 faculty members, Dr. Hank Weddington, and Dr. Kim Matthews, down to Camp Dogwood, located on Lake Norman, to do various service projects. With the guidance of the camp director, Susan King, the students painted screened-in porches, did some gardening at the front of the main office, and tightened screws on the bottom of chairs to make sure they were safe to sit in. The students stayed in the same quarters that any normal Camp Dogwood camper would stay in. They were even able to go out on Lake Norman in Dr. Matthews pontoon boat!

Overall there were about 4 screened in porches that were painted, about 500 chairs that were tightened for safe seating, and at least 20 flowers planted. Not only did the gardening students plant flowers, but they put down new wood edging for the gardens as well. By the end of the weekend the teaching fellows had made quite a visual change for the campus of Camp Dogwood. Even with all the hard work, the students still seemed relaxed by the beauty of Camp Dogwood. Sitting right on Lake Norman, there was a dock, a swimming area, birds, plants, and tress, that would take your breath away. Not to mention the beautiful weather that blessed the weekend with its presence. It was a wonderful weekend for service with a wonderful group of Lenoir-Rhyne students."

Mary Baldwin College VISTA, Leah Pallant, planned and led an ASB based around the issue of food insecurity. Leah and a dozen students wound their way through central Virginia and ventured north to Washington, D.C. They visited the Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee University, prepared and served a meal at Martha's Table, visited a food co-op, volunteered at a food bank, and learned about urban gardening at Tricycle Gardens. Participants examined the relationship between poverty and food security and laid the foundation for a long-term relationship between Mary Baldwin students and the organizations they visited. Leah described students at Mary Baldwin as having an "exemplary drive, understanding, and hunger for knowledge."
Jeri poses with Dive Into Durham students.

Jeri Beckens, VISTA at Duke University, also led a local ASB experience called Dive Into Durham. The group of ten Duke students worked with local non-profit organizations including the Durham Branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina where they bagged more than 2,100 meals. They also painted a conference room at the Community & Family Life Recreation Center at Lyon Park and prepared more than 200 meals at a homeless shelter. Over the course of the week the group logged more than 200 hours of service at seven different sites.

Wake Tech Community College VISTA, Jennifer Evans describes her ASB experience as being one she'll never forget. Jennifer tells her story best:

"Our Mission: Rebuild homes for people still affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Our Residence: Camp ReStore -- We were roughing it!
Our Partner: The St. Bernard Project

Jennifer Evans shows her AmeriCorps pride!
Six of us left on this journey together and we returned with shiny, new capacity-building skills, a new respect for the heart and courage of the people in New Orleans, and a greater understanding of exactly what AmeriCorps members can accomplish.

The St. Bernard Project restores homes and builds new homes to sell at a discounted price for people whose homes cannot be restored. We worked on a home that was going to be sold to a very worthy family. It was great to see that AmeriCorps members were in charge of the construction of the house! We bonded instantly and had lots of opportunities to discuss the different paths we have taken in AmeriCorps and how it's changed our lives for the better.

I am not the best painter in the world, but that was our charge for the week. We painted walls, borders, and ceilings. We learned to caulk and tape, and about the ins and outs of the business of building homes. We also spent a portion of a work day touring the levees and hearing stories from people who live directly across the street from them. We heard stories of husbands and wives who were separated for weeks and didn't know if their spouse was even alive and stories of people who climbed from their windows and hung onto whatever they could float on and the water took them to the roof of another house. We heard tales of recovery and the importance of our service in the recovery process.

We ended our week with a house-warming party for a woman who has been trying to rebuild her home since December 2005. Since 2005 she has been a victim of construction and insurance fraud twice and lost her husband while trying to rebuild their home themselves. But thanks to students, AmeriCorps members, and the St. Bernard project they got the job done!"

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

UNCW VISTA grows a Feast in Wilmington food deserts

Erin O'Donnell, an NC Campus Compact VISTA at UNCW, loves building relationships with people in the community. But at the moment, she is very excited about a machine.

After months of work navigating USDA and FIS regulations, permitting, and paperwork, Erin acquired an EBT machine for use at Feast Down East's mobile fresh market. "When it finally came (in March), I had to take a picture!" she confessed. EBT, or "electronic benefits transfer," enables an approved vendor to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, also known
Erin's EBT machine!
as food stamps.

Feast Down East, an organization that supports the growth of a local food system in the Wilmington area by connecting low-resource farmers with new markets, holds a fresh market every Friday in the public housing neighborhood Rankin Terrance. As a VISTA, Erin manages and publicizes the market, recruits and trains local residents to staff it, and develops nutrition education and other programs that supplement the Feast Down East mission of bringing healthy eating to food deserts. She also wrangles with federal bureaucracies when she has to.

"When I was going through the process (of applying for an EBT machine) I joked that I could write a novel," Erin quips. "But really I could write a trilogy."

The machine was first used at the April 5 market, and Erin expects more EBT transactions in the coming weeks as the weather warms and local produce is harvested. Erin has publicized the new payment option in the neighborhood with door hangers, and she is planning an "EBT celebration" on April 26 with music, games, and food samples to draw attention to the market and healthy eating.

Erin draws on her relationships with local residents and her training in public sociology to accomplish her work. Prior to becoming a VISTA, she studied with Feast Down East founder Leslie Hossfeld in UNCW's public sociology department, working with local residents to create a leadership development program. Erin also served as coordinator of the WHA-UNCW community campus, a joint project of the university and the Wilmington Housing Authority. "I was involved in this community for 1 1/2 years before I started as a VISTA," Erin explains, "so VISTA was a chance for me to continue my work with WHA."(Read a 2011 article Erin co-authored on the partnership.)

Erin (UNCW shirt) with other national service members on MLK Day.
Since her VISTA service began in November, Erin says she has grown "in ways I didn't expect. At first, I guess I wasn't really 'sold' on the idea of food deserts as a problem that could really exist." But, after living and working with people in an area "where it is really difficult to get food on their plates," what had been "an invisible problem" became very apparent. (See Erin talk about Wilmington food deserts.)

Her time working with Feast Down East has also raised her awareness of the intricacies of developing a local food system. Her work with the mobile market, she says, makes her "feel like I'm a pioneer," by helping to provide a new opportunity to residents. She's met many people who are experts in food systems and sustainable agriculture, including at Feast Down East's regional conference on March 1, which brought together farmers, institutional buyers and consumers (including folks from Rankin Terrace) for a day of workshops on such topics that ranged from consumer spending habits to mushroom cultivation.

A native of Fuquay-Varina, NC, Erin plans to stay in the Wilmington area once her VISTA service ends and she finishes her master's thesis - on using leadership development to build community capacity - in December. "It's nerve-wracking, what's going on with budgets," she says of public service employment prospects. But she is confident she'll find new ways to serve.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lighting it up - more VISTA project highlights!

MLK Day of Service was a big event for many of our VISTAs this term, as reported in a January blog post. VISTA Takira Dale, for example, helped to coordinate a MLK Day Read-In that drew 70 volunteers from 3 Winston-Salem-area campuses (Wake Forest, Winston-Salem State, and Salem College) to work with over 50 children, ages 4 -10. Participating kids were from Title I schools or agencies serving at-risk youth. The college students served as reading buddies for the day long event, which included fun activities geared to literacy, safety, civil rights history, and healthy eating.

VISTA Tiara Pugh and her supervisor work on MLK Day.
Elizabeth City State University, VISTAs Marion Hudson and Tiara Pugh coordinated an MLK Day event with the help of funds from NC Campus Compact's MLK Day Challenge Grant. The event drew 180 volunteers who served during the day at a dozen different host sites. The event was a partnership with two other local higher ed institutions, College of the Albermarle and Mid-Atlantic Christian University. 

Lenoir-Rhyne University VISTA Ariel Mitchell reports exciting new programs with her community partner, Centro Latino of Hickory, including a kids tutoring program that began in January and a new elder care program called "Adopto Un Abuelito," which will pair Centro Latino volunteers with elderly residents in the community to provide food assistance and companionship. Partners on the project include Meals on Wheels, the Backpack Project, and a local church. Having convened partners and given input on program design, Ariel will focus now on organizing food-donation drives to support the project.

At Virginia Tech, VISTA Alejandra O'Connor has implemented several improvements to ESL and citizenship programs offered by the Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority (RRHA) and the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement (CRR), a Virginia Tech student organization. Alejandra worked with the RRHA to develop a statement of program goals, and she created a basic reading comprehension and citizenship knowledge assessment to be used in ESL classes. Happily, two of the students Alejandra supports passed their exam and became citizens this period.

Saarah Abdul-Rauf, UNC Chapel-Hill VISTA, established community mentors at Volunteers for Youth (VFY) in Chapel Hill. Saarah worked with the SMART mentoring program, a group at UNC previous providing mentor support for VFY, to transition to a community-based mentoring program.

During the past three months, some VISTAs also supported innovative local and regional alternative breaks. More on those in a future post!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

VISTAs report project successes in the new year

NC Campus Compact VISTAs recently submitted their Interim Reports detailing activities and outcomes from January 1 - March 31. They have done so much good work that we can't share it all here, but we will share some highlights!

VISTA Sara Brown (kneeling in jeans) with Kotlowitz and students.

Sara Brown, UNC-Asheville's VISTA, had an op-ed published in a local Asheville newspaper, The Urban News. In her piece, "An Unheard Voice - Cost Over Kids," Sara urges school district decision-makers to clarify plans for students and staff of the William Randolph School, an alternative school serving middle and high school students who are at-risk of not graduating. Sara has worked since August to strengthen a partnership between UNCA and Randolph, engaging college student volunteers as tutors and mentors and organizing enrichment opportunities for Randolph students on UNCA's campus, like a February 21 visit with Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here.

Sally Parlier, Durham Technical Community College VISTA, was responsible for opening the Durham Tech Campus Harvest (DTCH) Food Pantry. Since opening on January 22 the Food Pantry has had over 750 visits and served more than 150 individuals. They've also collected approximately 2,400 lbs of food and raised $1,761 in cash donations. Sally has also developed a new partnership with Jordan High School. Her work has received attention from local media, as in this February report on WTVD:

Before finishing her term of service in February and starting a VISTA Leader position in Tennessee, UNCG VISTA Anya Piotrowski shared her magnum opus: the IRC - Tranisition Greensboro Community Garden Manual. The manual is an incredible accumulation of organic and permaculture garden techniques, planting schedules, garden design documents, and volunteer orientation materials that will enable future garden coordinators to manage the site (and local volunteers) year-round. If you are interested in a copy, contact Anya.

At Warren Wilson College, VISTA Jacqui Trillo reports exciting news: her partner organization Homeward Bound has hired a part-time Volunteer and Donations Coordinator who is taking on some of the duties Jacqui managed during the fall. Jacqui has helped the new staff member transition into the position by training her on volunteer and donation management materials, systems, and tools that Jacqui developed in the fall. Jacqui writes, "I know that my work last semester was constructive because some of the ideas she first suggested were ones I had already either implemented successfully or had tried and found to be unsuitable for the needs of HB." Capacity-building!

Elizabeth Corney at ECU reports that she has worked with the university's Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations to secure a $2,000 donation that will support the Campus Kitchen project next year. To help win the gift, Elizabeth compiled service numbers, photos, and a letter. In this final year of VISTA support for the CK project at ECU, Elizabeth has made sustainability a priority, creating a work study and a graduate assistant position to support the project and preparing a Campus Kitchen manual which will guide future coordinators.

Check the blog later this week for more project highlights!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

NC Mayors recognize importance of National Service

On April 9, fourteen North Carolina mayors affirmed the value of AmeriCorps in their cities by taking part in the first-ever Mayor's Day of Recognition for National Service. Led by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the day of recognition is a chance to highlight the solution-oriented contributions national service members make every day.

The fourteen North Carolina mayors join over 800 mayors from across the country. NC Campus Compact VISTAs are supporting projects in several of these North Carolina cities, and we would like to thank these mayors for recognizing the value of national service:

Mayor Terry Bellamy, Asheville
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, Chapel Hill
Mayor Anthony Foxx, Charlotte
Mayor William "Bill" V. Bell, Durham
Mayor Alfonzo King, Goldsboro
Mayor Michael R. Brown, Grand Forks
Mayor Benita Sims, High Point
Mayor BJ Murphy, Kinston
Mayor Joseph Gibbons, City of Lenoir
Mayor Ray Pennington, Lumberton
Mayor Miles Atkins, Mooresville
Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Raleigh
Mayor Bill Saffo, Wilmington        
Mayor Allen Joines, Winston-Salem

Several NC Campus Compact VISTAs are participating in events, including those in Charlotte and Raleigh. VISTAs Pam Pate and Christina D'Aulerio, of UNC-C and Queens University of Charllote respectively, joined fellow AmeriCorps members and representatives from nonprofits across the city at city hall to be recognized by Mayor Anthony Foxx. Jennifer Evans, Wake Tech Community College VISTA, was part of a group recognized for their service by Mayor Nancy McFarlane of Raleigh, featured in the photo. 

 NC Campus Compact is proud of the role our VISTA members play in mobilizing college student volunteers, creating partnerships with local non-profits, and improving life for citizens in these and all the communities our projects serve.

Thank you, Mayors and thank you, VISTAs!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

VISTA member helps Raleigh colleges and community connect

As a VISTA hosted by NC State University to support the Raleigh Promise, Brianna Roach is developing new programs that prepare young people to access higher education. A key to her work is the time she spends each week visiting community partners and the kids they serve. "Brianna is our 'boots on the ground' in the community," her supervisor Dr. Kelly Laraway explains.

Since she began her VISTA service in August, Brianna has learned about the network connecting the six colleges and universities that make up the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative, and the many resources those institutions can bring to bear in her work setting up the Raleigh College Center. The center is conceived as resource for community residents, especially young people, who want information and preparation that will lead them to access higher education. As the community liaison, Brianna spends time each week at the Chavis Heights Community Center, home of the first College Center. She also regularly connects with other key partners serving Raleigh youth, including Neighbor 2 Neighbor and the Hope Center.

So far, Brianna has organized college and career fairs and scheduled presenters from partner campuses to provide regular monthly programming at Chavis for the Insight Series. For example, on March 28th, Brianna hosted an etiquette dinner for 60 youth and 10 adults. The young people wore professional dress and had the chance to gain etiquette and interview tips, and they received items such as a portfolio to prepare them for professional settings.

Brianna at Chavis Community Center.
Brianna has also organized arts and science enrichment programming in at the College Center, and she is excited about a plan to offer mini-tours of several local colleges, including NCSU, Peace University, and her alma mater, St. Augustine's University. The tours will give up to 25 young people a chance to both visit the campuses and participate in fun activities like spray painting State's expression tunnel or playing a game show at Peace.

A New Jersey native from a large family, Brianna says working with the kids at Chavis has been the best part of her VISTA experience. She has tried to find ways to make College Center programs "down to earth" and fun - presenting financial aid information in a game of College Access Jeopardy, for example, rather than droning on about completing the FAFSA. "I learned that every kid doesn't need saving... they are smart, they have challenges, they want opportunities. I also learned that if you are not genuine with them, they will pack your bags for you."

When her VISTA year ends, Brianna hopes to move into a teaching position. Until then, she says, "I'm excited that I have the chance to be here" to help develop the programming calendar and make connections for the College Center. Her focus on presenting college information in ways that are fun and engaging will continue to influence future College Center offerings.